The Star-Thistle That Isn’t a Thistle

Basket-flower and beetle ~ Atascosa County

If you search the USDA site for information about the ‘American basket-flower,’ you’ll not find the attractive plant shown above, since its common name is listed there as ‘American Star Thistle.” Searching for it with a scientific name also can be problematic, since the USDA still applies Centaurea americana rather than the more current Plectocephalus americanus.

Taxonomy aside, both common names reflect aspects of this wildflower. While a member of the sunflower family, it lacks the familiar combination of ray and disc florets that make the family so recognizable. Instead, its bloom is composed solely of pink, lavender, and white disc flowers held in the basket-like phyllaries (modified leaves) that led to the plant being called a ‘Basket-flower.’

The Basket-flower’s pretty ‘basket’

On the other hand, ‘Star-thistle’ also makes sense, since basket-flowers so closely resemble various thistles. Traveling an Atascosa County road on May 9, I would have missed the basket-flowers had I not slowed for a closer look. What’s easily misinterpreted at 60 mph often suggests its true nature at 30 mph — and reveals its full beauty at a full stop.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Like Dipping Water With a Sieve

Mesquite trees ~ Frio County, Texas

From 1845 to 1847,  German naturalist Dr. Ferdinand Roemer traveled across Texas observing, collecting, and detailing discoveries in a journal published in 1849, after his return to Germany.  The expansive title — Texas ~ with Particular Reference to German Immigration and the Flora, Fauna, Land, and Inhabitants — is justified, as Roemer was a curious, keen-eyed, and accurate observer.

After arriving in Galveston via steamship from New Orleans and traveling up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, Roemer departed for New Braunfels. Along the way, he stopped in Gonzales and Seguin, and spent time at the historic El Capote Ranch. Eventually, he explored the area around New Braunfels in the company of Ferdinand Lindheimer, another German who already had acquired some fame as a botanist; in time, Lindheimer would become known as the Father of Texas Botany.

During their time together, Roemer and Lindheimer followed the course of the Guadalupe River for several miles below New Braunfels.  Roemer’s description of the mesquite trees he encountered during that trip came to mind when I discovered a lovely stand of mesquite in ranch country south of Devine on May 9:

A natural prairie or meadow one-fourth mile wide extends between [the Guadalupe] and a gently rising chain of hills, on which mesquite trees (Pleopyrena glandulosa Engelmann) were scattered. These mesquite trees, which spread also over a great portion of northern Mexico, give to the prairie of Western Texas much of its peculiar character…
The trunk is gnarled and now and then bent, thus making it unfit for lumber. They seldom obtain a thickness of over one to one and one-half feet in Texas, nor a height of more than twenty to thirty feet…
The foliage resembles the so-called acacia, inasmuch as it is plumeous. The individual leaves, however, are much narrower and the whole foliage is more graceful and transparent.
To find shade under a mesquite tree is like dipping water with a sieve.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an entertaining and informative article about mesquite trees in Texas, click here.
My copy of Roemer’s journal was published by Copano Bay Press, an independent Texas press dedicated to bringing back important works of Texas history.

Texas Thistle ~ From Bud to Bloom

One of our prettiest and most useful plants, the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum) begins blooming in April and continues to benefit a variety of birds and insects throughout the summer. A larval host for the Painted Lady butterfly, the plant provides nourishment for a variety of native bees, including bumblebees, and birds such as Goldfinches make use of its fluff and its seeds.

Each plant produces a single flower at the top of its usually unbranched stem. Sometimes confused with Engelmann’s thistle (Cirsium engelmannii), Texas thistle lacks that plant’s spiny bracts at the base of its flower.

 Its color and form are especially attractive, and its minimal prickliness makes it a fine addition to landscapes or pollinator gardens.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Mornings with Monarda

Spotted beebalm with phlox ~ Medina County

Named in honor of 16th century Spanish physician, botanist, and pharmacologist Nicolas Bautista Monardes (1493-1588), native Monarda species are widespread across Texas.

Monardes himself never traveled to the New World, but Spanish captains engaged in trade with the Americas knew of his interest in plants, and kept him well-supplied with new species. Monardes established a museum in Seville to house his growing collection — the first such museum in Western Europe — and brought the plants’ therapeutic values to the attention of his colleagues.

Drought tolerant, clump-forming members of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, Monarda species thrive in sunny areas with dry soil. During a visit to the Texas hill country on May 7-9, I found colonies of both Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) and Lemon Horsemint (M. citriodora) giving clear notice that late spring is turning into summer.

Spotted beebalm ~ Medina County
Lemon horsemint ~ Wilson County
Lemon horsemint with firewheels  ~ Gonzales County

 

Comments always are welcome.

Trouble in Paradise?

While I’ve been focused in recent weeks on our sudden profusion of spring wildflowers, that doesn’t mean the birds — interesting, funny, inscrutable — haven’t been providing their own sorts of pleasure. 

When I found these birds standing atop a small mud island in a Brazoria Wildlife Refuge pond, my first thought was that a double-date might have gone wrong. Perhaps the male Northern Shovelers on the left had decided to seek out more congenial companions, while the birds on the right — which might be young Northern Shovelers, or some other species entirely — were left to ponder their options.

In any event, the amusing scene is worth enlarging for the sake of a closer look at the birds’ expressions. Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid anthropomorphizing; feel free to write your own story!

 

Comments always are welcome.